Around this time last year, inspired by year-end "Best of . . . " lists, I compiled my own list of standout books I'd read during the past twelve months. I didn't rank my books—on that point I have to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who has compared picking five favorite books to "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I listed ten books I found memorable for any number of reasons: the writing was exceptional, the story was engrossing, the tale was told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I couldn't explain. That's what I'm doing again this year. A couple of the books on this year's list were written by friends, but that's not why I'm including them. They're on this list of books I want to tell you about because that's where they deserve to be.
Last year I limited my top-whatever list to ten books. This year I'm being more generous and giving you a baker's dozen. About half were published in the past year; the rest have publication dates ranging from 1960 to 2017. I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I look at the choices on my list, I see that several deal with pivotal periods in history, people making a life in unusual situations, and the challenges of overcoming adversity and finding a place in the world.
Just as I wrote last year, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2018? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
A Baker's Dozen Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2018
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. Burdened by crushing student debt and inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas took off to Alaska, where he scraped together enough money from odd jobs—cook, tour guide, and the like—to repay his loans. Finally debt-free and determined to stay that way, he enrolled in graduate school and bought a used Econoline van that became his mobile dorm room for the next two years. What began as an experiment in frugality became much more: an educational experience in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You might think the title and subtitle say it all: American boys, boat, epic quest, 1936, Berlin, Olympics. You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, right? But how it turns out is not the whole story. The beauty is in the details of this tale about a ragtag team of working class kids from the Pacific Northwest who learned—literally—to pull together, challenging elite rowing teams from the East Coast and Great Britain and ultimately defeating Hitler's vaunted rowers in the Olympics. Like a good novel, this saga portrays characters in ways that make you really care how things turn out for them. And just as I couldn't have imagined—until I read Barbarian Days last year—being engrossed in descriptions of one surfing wave after another, I could not have imagined—until I read Boys in the Boat this year—getting so wrapped up in descriptions of boat races. Yet I found myself riveted until the last page.
Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes. One reviewer described this book as a "fairy tale turned survival story," and that's an apt characterization. Barnes's childhood world of opulence and privilege in the Philippines is shattered when a monsoon hits with destructive force, her father leaves, and her mother takes up with a shady character. Still a child, Barnes is forced to fend for herself, navigating not only complex relationships with flawed people, but also such practicalities as finding fresh water. Hers is an inspiring story of resilience.
Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson. This book is also a story of resilience and adaptability, but it's almost a mirror image of Monsoon Mansion. Rickardsson, née Christiana Mara Coelho, was born into abject poverty in Brazil and lived with her loving mother in forest caves for the first seven years of her life. Her mother did the best she could, but eventually Christiana ended up in an orphanage. Adopted by a Swedish couple and taken home to Sweden, she was swept into a life that could not have been more different from her earlier years. The story of how Christiana/Christina adapted and came to terms with her dual identities is both heart-rending and heartening.
Listening to the Bees by Mark L Winston and Renée Sarojini Saklikar. I am truly blessed to have so many talented friends who find the most interesting outlets for their creativity. My bee buddy Mark Winston just keeps amazing me with his ideas and output. You may remember Mark from his guest post on collaboration, "Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs." Listening to the Bees is the delightful fruit of one of his collaborations. Merging Mark's scientific knowledge with Renée's poetry, the book explores the challenges to bees in the modern world—and to humans living in complex societies. That's all I'm going to say about this book right now, because I've promised to devote a more space to it in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. Not long after seeing the film "The Post," which dramatizes The Washington Post's struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, I was browsing at Flying Bear Books and saw a stack of copies of this autobiography by Katherine Graham. Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) was at the helm of the Post during both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate exposés. I snapped up the book and devoured it, fascinated not only by Graham's accounts of these two infamous periods of history and their relevance to current times, but also by the insider's view of a bygone era of journalism and the story of Graham's own evolution from awkward child to overshadowed wife to confident and competent businesswoman.
Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll by David A. Carson. I didn't live in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, but the city and its music were certainly on my radar and in my record collection, even when I was more than six-thousand miles away in the South Pacific. Carson's chronicle of Detroit's music scene and its ties to the culture and politics of the time makes for an engrossing read—especially fun for me because when I finally did move to Detroit in the early 1980s, I came to know some of the people who are mentioned in the book. Though I knew a bit about their roles in the music and political scenes of those earlier times, Carson's comprehensive account filled in the blanks.
The Chicken Who Saved Us: The Remarkable Story of Andrew and Frightful by Kristin Jarvis Adams. I learned about this book when I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle a few months ago, where The Chicken Who Saved Us won the Nancy Pearl Book Award for memoir. I would have bought it and read it for that reason alone, but the cover and the story behind it also drew me in. In this memoir, Adams relates how her son Andrew, who has autism, formed a close bond with a pet chicken named Frightful, and how Andrew's conversations with Frightful ultimately saved the boy's life.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. In this age of fractured attention and information overload, it's sometimes hard to commit to reading a book of four hundred pages or more. Yet that's not the reason I find myself increasingly attracted to extremely short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I delight in the authors' skill in telling a complete story in very few words, and I've started playing around with flash nonfiction myself. In this collection, Fennelly celebrates childhood memories, cultural observations, glimpses into domestic life, and other moments that make life rich.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Yes, I know I just extolled the virtues of short works, but there's also a place for mega-books like this 528-page political thriller. Mysteries and thrillers are not my usual fare. However, the idea of a former president collaborating on novel intrigued me. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton—and I realize there's quite a range of opinion—it's fascinating to read details that only a president would know, and to get a glimpse into how a leader's mind works in a crisis.
An Imperfect Rapture by Kelly J. Beard. I met this author when we both attended a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books, and when I learned that her memoir was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. Kelly has kindly agreed to an interview for an upcoming blog post, so I won't go into detail about the book here, except to say that the writing is exquisite, and the story of finding her way in the world after growing up poor, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion, is remarkable. Stay tuned for more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oh, man. This book sounded so far out when I read reviews of it, I just couldn't imagine getting into it. I know, George Saunders is no slouch, and the book was acclaimed by The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. But come on, a bunch of ghosts—who don't know they're ghosts—gossiping, griping, and skim-walking around a graveyard where they're caught in a sort of purgatory and trying to help Abraham Lincoln's recently dead son Willie escape such a fate? Really? All I can say is, I was hooked from the first page. The fact that I loved the book so much is a reminder that it pays to step out of my literary comfort zone (which for me would be reading yet another Anne Tyler novel—see list below) and take a chance on something completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods—on purpose—and lived alone there for twenty-seven years. Not exactly self-sufficient, Knight broke into nearby cottages for food and other necessities (including lots and lots of batteries), and though locals knew he was around, he and his secluded encampment remained out of sight for all those years. Journalist Finkel pieced together the story from interviews with Knight after he was found and arrested for the thefts. The story of how Knight survived, and the difficulties he faced in trying to readjust to the life that most of us consider normal, is revealing.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
- Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
- A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
- Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love & Vodka by R.J. Fox
- Awaiting Identification by R.J. Fox
- A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
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